Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

The English language is constantly evolving, as it has to adapt to the changing world all around it, as well as our interpretation of the world. You might remember last week when we discussed how hyphens can provide clarity, but when a term becomes increasingly commonplace, the hyphen can sometimes get dropped. This is also when when two words combine to form a compound word.

At some point in the not too distant past, it was the norm to write healthcare as health care. Indeed, most people wouldn’t fault you for writing it as two separate words. The same can be said about a word like lifestyle, though it’s pretty rare to find someone write that as life style. There is really is no rhyme, reason or rationale why a space or a hyphen can acceptably be dropped in some words and not in others. It just becomes a matter of convention and common practice.

The world of technology can confuse the matter even further, largely because technology advances at such a rapid pace. For example, common practice would say you should refer to a dot matrix printer, but you should call it a dot-matrix display and neither can really ever become dotmatrix, even if it’s clear that the two terms can be conceivably combined in such a fashion.

I’ve always come from the school of thought that you should be talking about websites and webpages, but many official standards will say that you should be writing those as Web sites and Web pages. Yes, both terms should not only be separated into two words, but the first word should also be capitalized. And then you’ve got E-mail, e-mail and email, as well as E-books, e-books and eBooks. You can probably blame attribute the convention of a lower-case initial letter followed by a capitalized main term to Apple and its iPods, iMacs and iPhones.

And speaking of phones, how confusing has that become? In some parts of the world, the phone that you carry around in your pocket each day is called a mobile telephone or a portable telephone (not to be confused with a cordless telephone). Other parts of the world might call it a wireless telephone. Many places have dropped the “tele” part to call them simply “phones,” and even that can be dropped to call it just a “mobile” instead.

Around here, we used to have cellular telephones. Those gave way to cellular phones, which led to cell phones and sometimes just a “cell.” Even though I personally find it quite strange to write it as a cellphone (one word), it has become a common spelling.

Even as I write this, WordPress is not picking up “cellphone” as a spelling mistake. I see the same thing happening with video games and videogames, though the latter is a spelling error according to WordPress and its spellchecker. And there’s another example: spellchecker. It used to be a spell checker or a spell checking tool… but “spellchecking” and “spellcheck” are also mistakes (according to the WordPress utility).

The point of today’s Grammar 101 post is to illustrate just how inconsistent this crazy language can be. In the earlier days of the Internet, we may have had Web logs. Somehow, those have mutated into web logs and today, they’re just blogs. We’ve taken the last letter of the first word, stuck it onto the beginning of the second word, and created a new term entirely. Thank goodness we don’t have to figure out how to pronounce bsites and rphones… yet.